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Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC)

Equality watchdog in Hong Kong spends too much and offers too little support, say NGOs calling for its reform

Critics say Equal Opportunities Commission rejects many applications for aid,

spends millions handling only a few cases

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 May, 2017, 10:51am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 May, 2017, 9:44pm

A coalition of NGOs is calling for reform of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission, which they say spends too much money and provides too little support to victims of discrimination.

“We would like to see legal reform to make them stand on the side of the victims and not set a very high evidence threshold,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, spokesman for the Equal Opportunity Action Coalition.

Victims of discrimination in Hong Kong can apply for legal assistance with the EOC. However, many never receive the support they need to pursue their claims.

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Of all the applications received from September 1996 to March this year, four were withdrawn, 346 were granted and 449 were rejected, official figures show.

If I didn’t have the savings or if I had a family to support, I would not have been able to pursue my case
Peter Jordan

“They try to make it very hard for the victims to get legal support because their evidence threshold is very high or very subjective,” said Lee, also secretary general of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

He criticised the EOC for the amount of money spent handling only a handful of cases, as many victims ended up not receiving legal assistance and even fewer saw their cases go to court.

“One lawyer handles, like, six cases per year. It’s really absurd.”

From April last year to March this year, the EOC paid about HK$8.6 million to a legal team, who were responsible for assessing cases for assistance. There were 17 new applications received in the first quarter of 2017.

Lee said the coalition is also calling for an equal opportunities tribunal similar to the Labour Tribunal, but focused on handling discrimination claims.

Peter Jordan, a former professor at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, is one of the applicants who had his request for legal support rejected by the equality watchdog.

“Millions of dollars are spent on lawyers [who work for the EOC], but the lawyers’ main job seems to be to find ways to reject almost every claim, including mine,” Jordan said.

Last year, the academy, along with Ceri Sherlock, chairman of its school of drama, paid HK$1 million to Jordan in a case settled out of court.

The professor had sued the academy and Sherlock under the victimisation provisions of the sexual discrimination ordinance, which provides protection to victims or advocates of victims.

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“If I didn’t have the savings or if I had a family to support, I would not have been able to pursue my case,” Jordan said.

An EOC spokesman previously told the Post that applications for legal assistance were submitted to the Legal and Complaints Committee, which considers “a number of factors, such as whether the case raises a question of principle; whether it can set important legal precedent; the strength of the evidence and likelihood of success; and whether litigation can lead to an effective remedy for the applicant.”

The advocates’ calls came as Taiwan’s top court ruled in favour of gay marriage on Wednesday.

Lau Ka-yee, representative of the Network for Women in Politics – also part of the coalition – said she expected Hong Kong’s government to start working with the EOC towards a speedy implementation of the same policy in Hong Kong.

Lau criticised the commission for doing little on this issue and not conducting serious legal research.

She noted that Hong Kong was lagging behind and that Taiwan was a very good example of “equality” among Chinese communities.

The EOC also said in a paper sent this month to a Legislative Council panel that it would “streamline policies, procedures and practices, including the case-handling protocols”.